Hail to the Chiefs -- A Conversation with Chris Whipple, Author of "The Gatekeepers"

As dysfunction engulfs the White House, it’s become clear that the President’s failure to empower a strong Chief of Staff, an official who can deliver bad news to him without batting an eye, is a big part of his problem. He’s surrounded by bickering voices, he’s not a good listener and he acts impulsively, without an effective chain of command.

These troubling political scenes, ripped from the headlines, are a vivid illustration of President Donald J. Trump’s first 100 days in office. But they’re not unprecedented. They could have just as easily described new presidential teams going back more than 50 years.

As Chris Whipple points out in his compelling and insightful book, “The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency,” new administrations have historically suffered from a Groundhog Day syndrome – a nightmare in which new presidents believe they can run the office on their own, without a strong Chief, only to wake up and discover that chaos is the inevitable result.

Then the next president takes office, and the cycle repeats itself.

Being the president’s Chief of Staff may be the second toughest job in America. As Leon Panetta, Bill Clinton’s second Chief puts it: “You have to be the person that says no. You’ve got to be the son of a bitch who basically tells somebody what the president can’t tell him.”

Whipple, an Emmy and Peabody-winning journalist, shows all that and more in a book about the presidency that’s not just timely and fascinating. Featuring interviews with all 17 living former Chiefs of Staff, it seems destined to take its place alongside classic works by Richard Neustadt, Theodore White and other White House chroniclers.

It’s also a publicist’s dream: While dozens of titles handicapping the 2016 election are about to hit the market, the timing of Whipple’s book leaves them all in the dust. Forget the November shocker. The election’s over. If you want to understand the dynamics of the Trump White House today and tomorrow, “The Gatekeepers” is a must-read.

There are chapters devoted to presidents who failed to understand the importance of a strong Chief of Staff (Jimmy Carter, Jerry Ford) and the few who moved quickly to install a strong executive (like Ronald Reagan). The book is packed with rich anecdotes and provocative analysis. Whipple concludes that, beyond Watergate, H.R. Haldeman, Richard M. Nixon’s Chief of Staff, was the model for how a modern Chief of Staff should organize the workflow and manage a president.

Crisply written and even-handed, “The Gatekeepers” never loses sight of the toll this pressure-cooker of a job takes on even the strongest executives. As Erskine Bowles, Clinton’s third Chief of Staff told the author: “People ask me if it’s like that television show ‘The West Wing.’ But that doesn’t begin to capture the velocity. In an average day you would deal with Bosnia, Northern Ireland, the budget, taxation, the environment – and then you’d have lunch! And then on Friday you would say, ‘Thank God – only two more working days until Monday.’”

Whipple brings impressive credentials to the table. He’s been a foreign correspondent for Life Magazine, and a producer for ABC News Primetime and CBS’ “60 Minutes.” Most recently he wrote and produced two documentary films, “The Spymasters: CIA in the Cross-Hairs” for Showtime, and “The Presidents’ Gatekeepers” for the Discovery Channel. He took time off from a hectic publicity tour to sit down with The HuffPost and discuss his new book.

JG: How did you get the idea to pursue this topic in the first place?

CW: I got a phone call out of the blue from a filmmaker named Jules Naudet. He and his brother, Gedeon, had done an iconic documentary about 9/11 for CBS, and he wanted to know if I would partner with them on a TV documentary about White House Chiefs. I thought about that for about five minutes and said ‘I’m in.’ It aired in 2013 on the Discovery Channel, but I felt that it just barely scratched the surface, that there was an unbelievable, untold story of 17 living White House Chiefs who make the difference between success and disaster of every presidency.

JG: How much deeper were you able to explore this theme in a book, compared to the documentary?

CW: With a documentary, with the voices of the Chiefs alone, you get the view from 30,000 feet. I wanted the view from the ground up. I wanted the view from their colleagues. I interviewed two presidents, several Secretaries of State, including Colin Powell, national security advisors, staffers and deputy chiefs, as well as experts. I was able to go much deeper and understand the nature of the beast. And in the process the central lesson for me was that every president learns, often the hard way, that you cannot govern effectively without empowering the White House Chief of Staff as first among equals. History shows that if you stray from that template, you’re asking for disaster.

JG: The book opens with a fascinating meeting at the White House between Rahm Emanuel, who is about to take the reins as President Obama’s first Chief of Staff, and many former Chiefs of Staff. How did you get such rich detail about that meeting?

CW: Well, it’s such a tremendous story and as soon as I heard that it had happened, and heard that every living Chief, except for two, had come to the meeting to show Rahm the keys to the men’s room, it was irresistible. I sat down with every Chief who was there and got his version of the events, and put the story together. It was the obvious scene-setter for the rest of the book.

JG: What are the lessons for you that came out of this meeting?

CW: It was the notion about how unthinkable it is that this meeting actually happened, in this polarized, toxic world of ours where partisanship is the rule and nobody talks to anybody about anything. It was amazing that these guys would still come together, everybody from Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld to John Podesta and Leon Panetta, to give this new guy advice. These guys are a unique fraternity of extraordinarily powerful players, and at the end of the day they care about how the White House works, they care about the position of Chief, and I think a lot of them spoke to me because the position is so little understood. They welcomed the opportunity to explain what it’s all about.

JG: How did you think your book would be received, in the aftermath of the last presidential election?

CW: I’ve got to tell you that the morning after Trump’s election, I was thoroughly depressed for about 10 minutes. I thought my book was irrelevant and nobody cared about anything except Trump. But I was wrong. It became clear that so many presidents make the same mistakes over and over again, and this new administration would be no different.

My book is about governing, and governing is tough. It’s not like running a real estate firm in Manhattan. You can’t do it by pitting senior advisors against one another and hoping for some kind of creative tension. This has been shown time and again to be a formula for failure in the White House, and that’s something these guys, the Chiefs of Staff, will tell you. Unfortunately, there’s no evidence that Trump is listening. But in all fairness, he wouldn’t be the first president not to listen. Cheney explained it to me. He said the new president typically walks in with his top staff, and their attitude toward their predecessors is, ‘Well, if you’re so smart, how come we beat you?’ They bring hubris to the job, and it shuts down their ability to learn.

It took Jimmy Carter two years to figure out he couldn’t govern without appointing a Chief of Staff. For one and a half years, Bill Clinton had a Chief of Staff in name only, Mack McLarty, a kindergarten friend, a very bright guy, but Clinton did not empower him to do what he had to do. Jerry Ford called this approach ‘The spokes of the wheel,’ where you have a lot of guys reporting to you, but no Chief. It’s a disaster, and if you listen to these guys who came before, you’d learn that.

JG: Based on that, how do you assess the Trump presidency so far?

CW: It is without a doubt the most dysfunctional White House in modern history. The level of ineptitude is off the charts. No competent Chief of Staff would ever send out an executive order on immigration without having it vetted by experts. There’s been one rookie mistake after another. But in fairness to Reince Priebus, the larger problem is Donald Trump. There’s nothing the Chief of Staff can do to right the ship if he’s not empowered to be first among equals. And there’s no evidence that Trump even wants an adult in the room. The most important thing a Chief does is to tell the president what he doesn’t want to hear. There’s no sign Trump wants anybody like that around.

JG: One of the most fascinating points you make is that H.R. Haldeman, for all his faults, was initially a model Chief of Staff. But he didn’t get to do that without Richard Nixon’s full approval. Did Nixon know something coming in that other presidents didn’t?

CW: Yes, I think Nixon carefully watched President Eisenhower who really created the modern position of Chief of Staff with Sherman Adams, the famously gruff gatekeeper they called “The Abominable No-Man.” Nixon learned that he wanted someone even more powerful, who would take the job to a higher level. He and Haldeman were obsessive about this. And what Haldeman did as a gatekeeper was to create a buffer zone around Nixon. He gave Nixon time and space to think, which is really important for any White House. The most valuable asset a president has is time, and Haldeman created that for him. He was the honest broker, in charge of communications. He was the president’s top confidant, and he executed policy for him. It all worked really well until it didn’t, and Watergate unraveled everything.

JG: How did it happen?

CW: Years later, Haldeman simply said, “We didn’t follow the system.” He says they completely screwed up, and the problem was that he could not speak truth to power when the chips were really down, to use two clichés in the same sentence. He couldn’t tell Nixon that the Watergate cover-up was wrong, and that it was clear that Nixon was in on the cover-up from day one, up to his eyeballs. It became an impossible situation, and how do you manage it? I don’t know.

JG: All presidents seek out advisers. Why should they “Beware the Spokes of the Wheel,” as Dick Cheney wrote in a note to Hamilton Jordan, who was Jimmy Carter’s right hand man?

CW: Cheney said the problem is, when there’s a really tough message that has to be given to the President, you can’t have eight or nine top-ranking guys saying, ‘Oh, it’s not my turn to do it. You have to do it.’ Somebody has to be in charge, someone who goes into the Oval Office, shuts the door and says ‘Mr. President, you can’t go down this road. Here are the consequences.’ Whether the president likes it or not.

JG: Does a Chief of Staff need to build bridges to the president’s family as well – if only to survive in the position?

CW: Absolutely. That’s a problem Jim Baker faced when he was Ronald Reagan’s Chief of Staff. The true believers, the ones who said, Let Reagan be Reagan, went after Baker tooth and nail from the beginning. But he was savvy enough to make strong alliances, most importantly with Nancy Reagan. He also made Mike Deaver a deputy chief, and Deaver was practically like family to the Reagans. And with those alliances, he was able to prevail in the fight against the ideologues.

JG: Looking back, isn’t it amazing that Reagan picked Baker to be his Chief of Staff--when Baker had been a strong advocate for George Bush, Reagan’s chief rival in the 1980 primary campaign?

CW: Yes, it was very unusual. It took a lot of courage to do that, reaching across such a divide. It’s hard to imagine Trump doing that, even considering it.

JG: Can’t we say, in fairness, that Trump’s administration is experiencing growing pains, like all administrations, and that things might look a lot different months from now?

CW: Well sure, it’s not the first time that a president has thought he can run the White House on his own. But the truth is that until Donald Trump realizes he cannot run the White House by himself--that he has to empower a Chief of Staff, and needs a grown up to tell him what he doesn’t want to hear--he’ll never be able to govern effectively. It’s easy to be the Great Disrupter. You can ride into town like a tough guy and disrupt all you want. But one day you wake up and realize you have to govern. That’s a whole new ballgame, and it’s going to be difficult for this president. With him, it could be mission impossible.

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